Mental Illness and Yom Kippur

Image: A well-dressed woman sitting bent-over on a bench. Photo by RyanMcGuire via

Before I learned to read Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. What should have been a holy day became a spiritual battle.

For me, and for others who suffer from a mental illness or affective disorder, holy days and holidays can carry an extra punch. There’s no shame in that; it’s also true for anyone who has had a recent trauma or whose close friend or relative has died.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting,  or call your therapist, DO IT.

FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (Really, they should not be quizzing you anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!

MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them properly. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, eat or drink. Medications do not solve everything, but they can be a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and I say a blessing when I do it.

LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. The first is to schedule some time with your rabbi (after the holy days!) to talk about “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations.

DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.

Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some mental health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.

This is an updated version of a post I wrote three years ago.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

5 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Yom Kippur”

  1. Thank you for writing this about fasting. Back in 1993, I was beginning to get involved in Judaism. I had gone to my first Rosh Hashanah service and had decided to fast for Yom Kippur, the way I always saw my mother do it.

    For me, this turned out to be a bad idea. I did indeed fast but did not go to synagogue nor do anything particularly “Jewish.” After sundown, I ran to the supermarket, bought a big frozen pizza and downed the whole thing.

    At the time, I was maintaining a weight loss of around 50-70 pounds. Eating this pizza was the catalyst for consuming more and I eventually wound up weighing more than 300 pounds.

    I’m not going to blame Yom Kippur for this nor am I particularly unhappy because of it (anymore). In fact, in 1997 I met my partner in a group for fat people. If I had stayed at 1993 Yom Kippur weight, I never would have met her because I wouldn’t have gone to a fat group.

    I’ve also since lost over 170 pounds and have kept 150 of them off. All this being said, I am considering fasting next year for Yom Kippur after what I hope will be my first year of serious Jewish exploration and involvement in the community. This gives me a year to prepare for that possibility.

    I am pleased that there is a Rabbi who understands that for some of us, fasting — or doing anything differently with food – is fraught. I have very specific food rules (which have enabled me to keep the weight off) and messing with them messes with me.

    1. Debra, I’m glad that my post was helpful to you. I always find it helpful to recall that the prophet Isaiah was rather scornful of those who refrain from food but who do not care for the vulnerable (Isaiah 58).

  2. You made me think again 🙂 As a recovering Catholic “everything is a sin”. I did thank my therapist on Thursday for helping me cope with PTSD. Thank you Rabbi Ruth for your insightful articles.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Dennis! I congratulate you on persevering in the face of PTSD, and wish you a refuah shleimah, a complete healing!

      Happy Sukkot!

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